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Monday, August 30, 2010

Chhotay Naana

"I will live till I am 120", he'd said, laughing, on the day we had all 'decided' was his 60th year. He was a distant relative of my Naana and his parents decided to share my Naana's name with him (Iftikhar Husain). He had always been very close to our family. We saw him visiting every family member, close and distant, at every opportunity he got.

Chhotay Naana - (or Chhotay Miañ, as my parents and uncles called him) - was someone I wish my daughter, Ragni, would have met. What a 'hero' he was for all of us children. Well, sort of Hero Number Zero, actually, if you really want to know.

My first meeting with him that I can recall was at Calcutta, when my Ummi and I (a 5-year old) were with my Khaala and Khaalu. "My father-in-law is a Bütraél and he brings tons of good food into the house", he said, giving me a Mars bar. "What's a Bütraél?", I asked. He said, "It is a ship's captain, in Bengali." — It wasn't until 13 years later that I discovered, when I joined the Merchant Navy, that a Bütraél (lots of our Bengali Khalaasis called him that) was really the 'Butler' on the ship. 

Chhotay Naana had tons of things to say to everyone in the house. All his relatives mocked him, teased him, laughed at him — but he was always great. He laughed and argued, but never in anger. Never saw him lose his temper, until once, a few days before his death, when a kid told him that he was never "the same level" as his family. Chhotay Naana lost his mind and rattled off misdeeds after misdeeds that the girls uncles and aunts had done. That was the only time I ever heard him shout.

We laughed away at his sentences ("When Mustafa Kamal came to charge against the mullas he had his right hand on the reins of the horse and he carried a pistol and sword in both his hands!") and were amazed at his wonderfully true stories, some of which I will recall in this piece, too.

Chhotay Naana was never educated. In fact, when my Naana died, he said to Ümmi the next day that there really was no point in studying at all: "Look at your father. He studied. Became a Judge. So what? After all he died, na?"

He insisted that everyone say 'Shoe Designer Iftikhar Sahab' when talking of him to someone. He sometimes made the shoes by hand for you. His designs were fabulous. Really! Amazing drawing skills. Wonderful ideas. Everyone in the family and friends wanted shoes made by him and often paid him advances for them. Some he delivered. Others? Hmmmm ... Well, if he suddenly thought there was enough money, he'd go to the train station and say "Give me a ticket with this money and I will travel and when I reach there I will earn money and come back." Which is how he saw a lot of UP, CP, Hyderabad, Bombay, Calcutta. And much of Pakistan, too.

"So how did you ever do anything for food or stuff?", my cousin and I asked him in Karachi, fascinated. "Ohh, there were places where one could eat freely for a couple of days. And then I found some people who wanted shoes so I made them and made some money. And saved some for the train ticket and came back", he said. "Really? You made enough?", we asked. "Of course. And the last one was from someone I took an advance from but used it for my fare. I'll send him shoes, soon." — We were pretty sure he never did. "Didn't you go to a mosque", asked Farida Baji, "They give free food there." He said "Vüzoo naheeñ thaa" ... and laughed.

He came to Calcutta after my Chacha got him a job in the Bata Shoe Company - which he worked at for a while, but left because he said, "They are doing crazy things, like everyone having the same type of shoe. People want to be different. Why the same kind of shoes, bhai?"

In Calcutta he had married for the second time (his first wife was a cousin he married early and had a son and a daughter by her) and was madly in love with her. She refused to come to Pakistan and Chhotay Naana always wanted to go see her.

In Karachi, while a cousin and I were together and we were playing with a Globe that Abi had given me, he appeared and asked us what it was. "It's a map of the world", my cousin said. "Round? Why?", said he. "Because the world is round?", said my cousin. "Really? Then what is this?", he said, drawing out a map of the world from his big thaéla that he carried. "That's just a map that's been made on paper. This is the real shape of the world", said my cousin. He was 12. I was 8. And we were both surprised that Chhotay Naana didn't know about the world. "Aah," he said. "Does that mean that we are all inside the circle?" ... "No," said my cousin, "we are outside" — and put his hand on the Globe. "Ohh … so people on the bottom don't fall off? Hahaha! Who teaches you these things? Priests!"

My cousin took hours to explain the Earth, the Planets, the Solar System, the Gravity, the Rotation … and Chhotay Naana listened and understood. Almost. He then said, "So if I jump up a bit and wait until the world has turned and jump down again will I land in Calcutta with my wife?" —  "Well, you can't jump that high," said my cousin. He thought and then said: "Hmmm, if the airplane people 'knew' of this why don't they send planes right up and wait and come down when Calcutta comes under them. They'd save petrol. And I'd see my wife. Without much money."

Ümmi told us about a time when Chhotay Naana was young and had arrived at her house with some latha for making a pyjama. "It's way too big for a pyjama but not enough for two," said Ümmi. "Oh, no. I got the extra amount cheap and you can make a long kamarband which I will tie around. Each time I need a new one for a naya pyjama, I can cut it off from here. And if before that I feel thirsty I will be able to tie it with a bucket and bring up water from a well." — Long term thinking :)

Everything was important and had to be commented on. One day he came back upset at Ayub Khan (then the President of Pakistan) and said, "Ayub is very strongly against us for migrating here and wants us to have fewer children so that we don't become the major part of Pakistan". "How do you know that?", asked Abi. "Oh, there are signs in the city his goverment has put up, in Urdu for us, that say have only 2 children — so that's what that means." I said "Chhotay Naana the signs are in Urdu here because people read Urdu, but in Peshawar they'll be in Pushto ..." — "Oh, c'mon. You haven't seen any signs there and are just arguing. Anyway, even if they were in Pushto, do you think Pathans ever follow what they read?"

He walked into our house with a Jang in his arms: "Look at this," he said. "What a stupid idea." He was referring to a story on the first page that said US had launched another ARTIFICIAL Satellite. "Just a few days ago Russia did the same. Why can't they put their money together and launch a REAL one!"

His thaéla had all sorts of things in it. Among them were pictures of his Calcutta wife, his daughter and son, a picture of me as a kid, and one of my niece, Rana, - cut from a US magazine - of her hair being described as amazingly beautiful. There were little articles on shoes. A scrapbook of sorts. Plus the picture that I took (and have placed at the beginning of this article).

In the last year of his life he had suddenly become very ill with age and asthma and would be painstakingly bent down as he sat and breathed very heavily. "I don't think I can make it to 120 any more. Pakistan mayñ müshkil haé lambaa rahnaa."

Three days later he was dead.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hitchens - The Man I Love & Hate

Mary E. Williams, a writer with Salon magazine, had this to say about him: "He remains a big, fat jerk. And a goddamn genius."

This is the way that many view him and his writings. His Atheism, and most of the arguments for it, are wonderful. His NewCon-ism and political approaches to Iraq and many other issues are often ridiculous. But it's always worth reading him.

There is no 'prayer' one can offer for Christopher - although he does accept the ones that are offered for his cure as people show their wishes through them - but I do have a hope that he will be around for a long while, with much less painful manifestations of his Esophageal Cancer. 

May he continue writing his articles (maybe, even a book) and keep us entertained for as long as he can through TV shows.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cori's family sends this message ...

Our loving and talented daughter/sister Karen Su Ying (Cori) Woo has been tragically taken from us. She was due to be married on her return to the UK.

Her motivation was purely humanitarian. She was a Humanist and had no religious or political agenda.

She wanted the world to know there was more than a war going on in Afghanistan, that people were not getting their basic needs met. She wanted the ordinary people of Afghanistan, especially the women and children, to be be able to receive healthcare. She undertook this trek as a medical doctor, accompanying medical supplies and to provide treatment to people who lived in an extremely remote region who had little to no healthcare available.

Her commitment was to make whatever difference she could. She was a true hero, whilst scared she never let that prevent her from doing things she had to do.

She would not want this tragedy to overshadow the ongoing plight of those still in the greatest of need.

Karen you were an inspiration to everyone you met. You combined brains and beauty, intelligence, drive and kookiness in equal measure. You led an intensely packed and rich life: dancer, model, stunt plane walker, doctor and aid worker. Whatever you set your mind on you did so with passion.

You were the embodiment of seizing the moment. You went through life always believing the best of everyone despite everything you’ve seen.

We are so proud of the work you were doing and all that you have achieved.

You made a difference in people’s lives and for that you will not be forgotten. You will be sorely missed by us, your family and friends, here in the UK, around the world and in Afghanistan.

I hope that the legacy you leave is to inspire others to give love and aid rather than perpetuate hate and violence.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Things have changed ....

(but that was 50 years ago.)


NYC 7 - Museum of Modern Art

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